Learning Difficulty

Understanding learning difficulties in children

It may seem unfair to label some children’s academic progress as ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’, however learning should be like any other kind of development – some skills should be able to be assumed at a certain age. If education was provided one-on-one, there would be less of a need for benchmarks and children could be taught according to their abilities. Within a classroom, however, a certain level of understanding is expected and children with learning difficulties can struggle to keep up.

Symptoms of learning difficulties

Learning difficulties are diagnosed by measuring how well an individual has mastered an individual academic area compared to most children of the same age. These benchmarks have been set through standardised testing and allow for below-average scores that do not amount to a learning disability.

Learning difficulties fall into three types according to the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-IV). Learning difficulties can include:

  • Academic skills disorders – reading, writing, maths
  • Developmental or speech disorders –articulation problems or poor use of language
  • Other disorders relating to non-academic areas – coordination, attention, memory

Learning includes four steps – receiving, integrating, retrieving and using information. The learning disability may exist in any of these four steps, and the information given can also affect how the difficulty manifests, such as the inability to distinguish between two similar sounding words.

It is important to remember that a leaning difficulty does not occur because of a deficiency in the brain, but is a problem in the brain’s connections. This is a reason that children with learning difficulties often have average or even above average intelligence, but aren’t able to fully process information to reach their full potential.

Children may have problems in different areas depending on the type of learning disability. Some children may struggle with verbal learning, such as spelling, reading, vocabulary or writing, while others may struggle with nonverbal learning, such as mathematics, motor, spatial, social or sensory.

Children with learning difficulties tend to have problems in the verbal area, which can affect language tasks that require expression and being receptive. Children with learning difficulties may also struggle with organisation, poor memory, inattention or high distractibility and trouble with task sequencing. Remedial classes and tutoring can help some of these solutions address the source of the problem.

Why do learning difficulties arise?

While learning difficulties often affect how a child perceives language visually or auditorily, there is no problem with the child’s eyes or ears. The difficulty is a result of how the information from their eyes or ears is processed and relayed to the relevant part of the brain. Learning difficulties are often referred to as developmental disorders with a neurological basis as it originates in the brain.

Certain features of every type of learning disability are related to the ear, auditory processing and the auditory system. The cochlea and the vestibule play pivotal roles in the ability to learn, as explained below.

The cochlea is the organ of hearing and receives every sound in the environment. The vestibule controls motor balance, sensory integration and coordination, for example the vestibule plays a role in reading by controlling visual tracking.

The extent of the problem becomes clearer when the inner ear of a child with a learning difficulty is explored in detail. Accurate auditory processing is important to learn a language, fine motor coordination is essential for legible writing, a well-functioning brain requires a strong neural network and strong visual tracking enables reading. The cochlea and the vestibule share some anatomical components so it is not uncommon for them to demonstrate parallel strengths and weaknesses.

The different types of learning difficulties

A verbal learning disability is frequently diagnosed and affects language tasks such as reading, writing, spelling and comprehension. A verbal learning disability may present itself as a difficulty in using language to communicate, relating written letters with their spoken sound, reading or spelling.

There are many ways that we use language, which is why difficulties differ so widely between children. Some types of developmental and speech language disorders can include:

  • Expressive language disorders – trouble communicating a message effectively
  • Receptive language disorders – trouble comprehending or responding to a verbal message properly
  • Articulation disorders – trouble controlling the rate or sound of speech

Academic skills disorders refer to specific areas of achievement most often addressed in a school setting and can include:

  • Developmental reading disorders – problems combining or separating word sounds (sometimes referred to as dyslexia)
  • Developmental writing disorder – trouble composing a coherent written sentence including legible handwriting and correct grammar
  • Developmental arithmetic disorder – trouble recognising and manipulating numbers and mathematical reasoning

Diagnosing learning difficulties

The best way to diagnose a learning disability is through an IQ test and educational assessments. These tests can give an estimate of a child’s overall achievement which is followed by separate scores in a number of different areas. A learning difficulty tends to be reflected in a major discrepancy between the child’s general achievement level and their ability in a certain area.

Treating learning difficulties

There are a number of ways to treat learning difficulties. No two children have the exact same learning difficulties, so no two will need the same treatments.

There are no ‘cures’ for learning difficulties, but programs can be developed to help work around the difficulties. Workarounds include:

  • Specialised education services
  • Individualised education programs
  • Special education
  • Working with a specialist

Some children with learning difficulties may have other conditions that may require their own treatments.